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K Srinivas, President (B2C) Airtel On Offloading Data To Wifi, Smartphones, Data Pricing, Broadband


In Part 1 of our interview with K Srinivas, President of Bharti Airtel‘s B2C business unit, which includes all its consumer business and market operations, including Mobile, Telemedia, Digital TV and emerging segments like M-commerce, M-Health, he spoke about losing money on 2G data, and about processes put in place for improving billing practices in VAS (i.e. addressing false billing and reducing unethical practices), on developer revenue shares and how Airtel was thinking about the developer ecosystem and app store integration. In Part 2, he speaks about offloading traffic to Wifi, smartphone addition, revenue sharing with web companies, data pricing, IPTV and broadband operations, among other things:

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MediaNama: On video, how many simultaneous streams can your network support?
Srinivas: I can’t answer that (laughs). At a conceptual level, we do dimension our network for the peak utilization. When you’re constrained with 5MHz on 3G, you have limitations. That’s where we need to create one backdrop of a packet core, where for 2G, 3G, DSL, is a common packet core, across all devices, technologies, and we have that little advantage. Is 5MHz enough to manage millions of people on 3G? Obviously not. It’s a technical impossiblity.

MediaNama: What’s your take on offloading traffic to Wifi?
Srinivas: That’s something which is core to our strategy. We have started building our Wifi Hotspots. To start with, we’ll have cafe’s, airports, malls etc. We have over 1,000 odd hotspots, which is not enough, but it needs to get into hundreds of thousands. There is a team which is aggressively pushing that. The presence of copper and fibre costs are inhibiting. In the western world, when they wanted to put up hotspots, they just walked into a place and it was fibred. Here you’ll need to start building that. What we’re experimenting with is using LTE for hotspots. It is a slower process that what you would see…if you go to a café and you want to Wifi that, how would you backhaul it? Copper and Fibre are not available in every single building. It’s a slow process, but we’re absolutely sure that we are going in that direction.

MediaNama: Would you offload traffic, or would you price it separately?
Srinivas: We’re looking at multiple models, but the core reason why we would like to do this is to offload to WiFi Hotspots. We know that 5MHz spectrum is not enough. Even today, though, there are hotspots which get choked. There are pockets near Delhi University and some pockets of Gurgaon get choked during peaked hours.

MediaNama: How many smartphones is the country adding every month?
Srinivas: The industry is adding about 1.1 -1.2 million devices per month. That has moved up from 0.6-0.8 million a month some 8-9 months ago. It has been slightly slower than what we thought it would be. If the price points come down to the sub-$100 mark, then it would proliferate. The data customers are around 100-120 million, but how many are active is anybody’s guess. Our definition is someone who has used at least once in a month.

MediaNama: So when it comes do data consumption, where do you stand on charging sites like Google for letting consumer use them?
Srinivas: (laughs) I knew you were going to ask about this. The notion is that everything on the Internet is free. So Google doesn’t charge the customer, Facebook is free. There are billions of dollars of investment going in. This is not just an Indian issue, it’s a global issue. We’d not even rolled out 3G and 4G has dawned upon us. The industry, and the costs of rolling out, building a backhaul. Backhaul costs in India are backbreaking. In South Bombay, if you want to put up a kilometer of fibre, the Right of Way cost is almost about Rs 1 crore. Show me one business model, with the data consumption going up, that supports these continuously increasing costs. The data ARPU the world over is flat to declining. The notion that telecom operators are making tons of money is incorrect. Show me one company in India or anywhere in the world that is thriving on data. You need to have the right kind of model. There is no free lunch.

MediaNama: But as a customer, I’m paying you for this access.
Srinivas: If you’re paying me 100 bucks for 1 gb, but beyond that you’ll have to pay.

MediaNama: So don’t charge me Rs 98 for 2gb.
Srinivas: At some stage, Rs 98 will become Rs 200 for 2gb.I’m not getting into whether this pricing is right or wrong. Even on voice, the current rates are not sustainable. Every single operator is sitting on huge sets of investment. This pricing for data or voice is not sustainable. Lets build the right business model. On one side you compete, and on another you collaborate. The point you were making (in your post) was that I need Google and Google needs me. Very true. The issue is that the amount of investment that goes behind. Tell me one product or commodity in the country which has not changed its price upwards in the last 10 years, or even the last one year. You’ve seen everybody drop prices. I pay in dollars for all my investments and I earn in paise. There is significant investment.

MediaNama: How would you respond to a situation in 2013, where Reliance comes in and drops prices?
Srinivas: We have dealt with that more than adequately. I don’t want to talk about what we will do, and we’ve dealt with it in the past, and there is a solution going forward. If there is one company which can survive and sustain, and there are bigger issues in the market.

One other thing I wanted to talk to you about was that a lot of guys actually believe that speed doesn’t cost money. It’s completely untrue.

MediaNama: What’s going in on Broadband in this country?
Srinivas: It’s because your costs of setting up broadband is prohibitive. The cost of setting up a link is almost about Rs 25,000.

MediaNama: Have you decided that the customer base you have in broadband now is enough? That it’s now about milking that base instead of trying to grow it?
Srinivas: I’m selling you Rs 1,000 for 10 GB. The notion of a fair usage doesn’t exist.

MediaNama: There are concerns that people haven’t reached a particular limit, and they get alerts that they have.
Srinivas: We do alert people when they reach 80 percent. If there are specifics about bugs, we can check them out. We have an elaborate testing protocol. We do give people an option to buy additional GBs.

MediaNama: Is wireline Internet profitable for you?
Srinivas: It is profitable, but our approach has been about picking and choosing areas to roll out in. It is not like mobile coverage. We’ve identified colonies, high rises to cover. But a lot of guys believe that once you put the network up, speed doesn’t cost you money. Speed does. It’s speed that costs you money. Every time you want to upgrade customers – it’s a pipe. If I want to keep a uniform experience and upgrade everybody, I need a thicker pipe.

MediaNama: What will reduce costs for you?
Srinivas: Right of way. Let there be a smoother, quicker right of way. There are multiple agencies.

MediaNama: Why not point to point Wimax for last mile access?
Srinivas: Whatever wireless options. We’ve kept Wimax away. For the last mile, if you need to throughput big volumes, you need wireline. The fixed internet is making its way back the world over. Spectrum is limited.

MediaNama: Is IPTV dead?
Srinivas: For us, IPTV is like VAS. Mainstream is DTH. Once the satellite is up, it can get anywhere. IPTV requires 4mbps connectivity. If you’re far away from the node, you’ll have a problem. You’ll not get a consistent experience. The moment I go to HD, you’ll need fibre. When Fibre does make inroads into homes… the disadvantage of DTH is that there is no return path.

MediaNama: Who’s going to put in the fibre? The National optical fibre rollout is going to the villages…
Srinivas: The costs of fibre in this country is an issue. In the western world, the government incumbent operators made that effort, and everybody was mandated after it was unbundled. Unbundling of the last mile is still an issue in India.

MediaNama: You think unbundling of the last mile might happen in India?
Srinivas: Now it might. You’ll have to look into the quality of the fibre that exists. Right now there are bigger issues on the table.

Corrigendum: we’d incorrectly quoted Srinivas as saying that Airtel doesn’t alert people when they reach 80%. Our apologies for the typo.

  • http://twitter.com/mgcarley Mathew Carley

    Mr Srinivas answers to Medianama’s questions just go to show that Airtel does not know how to sell Broadband.

    They don’t seem to realize that 1km of fibre can support thousands of users and many many gigabits – 60 average size properties fit in to a kilometer, each with numerous residents.

    Given the population density in the area, let’s say you have a reasonably easy target of 1,000 subscribers per KM of fiber, you’ve got a direct cost of Rs 10,000 per subscriber + equipment & cables (around 12,000 in the case of GPON using the same Alcatel Lucent Gigabit stuff I am, but this can be reduced by about Rs3k if you want only 100mbit/s capable CPEs… or if you’re setting up DSL like Airtel are, you’re looking at around Rs5k port cost + copper so around 10k) which works out at Rs22k which works out to about US$400 or so which, lo and behold, is what Google is spending in Kansas City for FTTH, and cheaper per premises passed than New Zealand and Australia.

    So if you want to amortize this cost over a very short period (say 24 months), this cost works out to a little under Rs1k per month. Given the cost of bandwidth at the level Airtel buys (from itself) is around Rs10 lakhs per STM (155mbit/s), there is a per GB equivalent cost of less than Rs2.

    Taking in to account everything else, I can understand why plans start at around Rs1k – I can justify that. What I can’t justify is the ever increasing strangulation on their users and topping out plans at 150GB a month or so, which for them are fairly profitable.

    I also can’t justify this statement of “One other thing I wanted to talk to you about was that a lot of guys actually believe that speed doesn’t cost money. It’s completely untrue.” and “But a lot of guys believe that once you put the network up, speed doesn’t cost you money. Speed does. It’s speed that costs you money. Every time you want to upgrade customers – it’s a pipe.” In what universe is he living? Is he seriously suggesting that pushing 10GB at 2mbit/s is cheaper than pushing 10GB at 4mbit/s? Or 8mbit/s? Surely not.

    His DSLAMs are capable of up to 24mbit/s. The only significant difference between a 4mbit/s line profile and a 24mbit/s line profile is a small software configuration. The copper costs him the same. The equipment costs him the same. The modem costs him the same. The backhaul costs more (if he leases it), because he might have to buy 2gbit/s instead of 1gbit/s, but if he’s building his own fiber he’s got virtually unlimited capacity, so this would not even factor in to the equation. So where are these extra costs? Can he show me some numbers that prove it? I seriously doubt he can show me anything that would be significant enough to adversely affect the bottom line.

    For the record, we’re doing just fine pushing our GBs at 100mbit/s and not having it cost any more than pushing that same amount of data at 1 or 10mbit/s. Sure, maybe I have to buy more powerful OLTs and bigger core routers but, on a per-customer-per-month basis the price difference is miniscule and thus totally worth it, and with Airtel being a Cisco Gold Partner they get pretty steep discounts on equipment anyway.

    The right of way thing, though, is one of the few points with which I do agree. It looks like I need to start offering Airtel access to my fiber.

    • http://www.facebook.com/tarundua80 Tarun Dua

      Pretty detailed post, when there is a lot of bandwidth always available the need to hoard content via torrent becomes passe, consumers tend to use about the same datatransfer per month on 2,4,8,16,24 or 100 Mbps

      • http://techwhack.com operamaniac

        Yeap. They need to stop treating bandwidth like a precious commodity. Make it available in abundance and people would eventually get tired of misusing it and reach a stable pattern.

  • http://techwhack.com operamaniac

    I have one thing to say to airtel… if they are so jealous of the ‘billions of profits’ that airtel and facebook are generating, they should get out of the telecom market and become a dotcom company.

    as for google/facebook needs you and you need them. right. but my telephone company does not have right to ask me a share of my profits i am generating from my business which might include the use of their telephone services right?

    as per airtel, i should give a part of the profits i generate to these guys: my electricity provider, my telephone service provider, my maid, my cook, the grocery guy who delivers the vegetables to my place and so on. right? because i depend as much on them as they depend on me right?

  • http://twitter.com/mgcarley Mathew Carley

    Also… “So Google doesn’t charge the customer, Facebook is free. There are billions of dollars of investment going in”… except you peer with Google and the company that takes care of Facebook in India (that is, Akamai). The relationship is mutually beneficial. If they didn’t exist, customers would not buy your service. You have no right to charge them for anything except the resources they already need to directly buy from you.

    Moreover, companies like Google and Facebook (and Akamai) buy HUGE amounts of International bandwidth from companies just like you so that they can bring the content in from where-ever it originates to populate local caches so that their customers (also your customers) can access their service better, thereby allowing them to maintain their dominance.

    Google has racks of servers in Mumbai, Chennai and Delhi at the very least which are serving your customers the content they demand from a local source so that you don’t have to buy an extra 10 or 40 or 100gbit/s or expensive International bandwidth. That is to say, the investments in caching by Google, Facebook and so on SAVE YOU MONEY.

    Domestic backhaul is something you’re paying for just by virtue of providing your customers with a service. Your customers indirectly pay for that as part of the price of your service.

  • http://twitter.com/ahirmayur ahirmayur

    Rise of another Genius in lines of Vishwa Bandhu Gupta

  • The Sorcerer

    Go home, Srinivas! U Drunk!!!

  • The Sorcerer

    Airtel should do everyone a favour and sell/donate their business to someone who knows how run an ISP/Telecom company.

  • Thor

    “You’re an old man and a fool!”

  • Shree

    So, Airtel is saving bandwidth for whom ?? Will they open their bandwidth in 2020 ?? If Infra is there, why don’t they enrich is with speed and make themselves rich too.

    Also, I am highly terrified whether Airtel didn’t ask for a profit share in my small business which is running on its connectivity. They seems to be more scary than the present government.

  • http://twitter.com/telecomadda TelecomAdda

    Sick Guy. This is the Reason why Airtel Sucks.
    This thing is pretty funny… “Have you decided that the customer base you have in broadband now is enough? That it’s now about milking that base instead of trying to grow it?” :D

    • http://twitter.com/mgcarley Mathew Carley

      And his response still didn’t actually answer that question.

  • http://techwhack.com operamaniac

    *We do alert people when they reach 80 percent.*

    Was this statement changed?

    • http://www.medianama.com Nikhil Pahwa

      how can we make it more prominent? It was a typo.

      • http://techwhack.com operamaniac

        Well, it changed the entire meaning of his statement.

        Original version made him look like a fool. The corrected version makes him look like this evil person who thinks that breaking the flow of browsing for their customers is a *feature* especially when we redirect them to the sales page of our SmartBytes offering.

        Airtel customer care people knows about this feature and how it bothers their customers. I have been told several times that they plan to inform the management about this problem. This guy has just confirmed that the top management knows about this problem and they are ignoring it because they consider it as a feature.

        Just saying.

        • http://twitter.com/chirag Chirag

          It’s not a bloody feature. It is an idiot product manager’s bright idea to sell more upgrade packs.

          Earlier you could just click and ignore. Now they have a captcha which you have to fill out to even say no. Pathetic.

          I have this sneaking suspicion that they interrupt long running downloads as well. If your system (e.g. PS3) doesn’t support resuming. God help you.